STEM has been the talk of many interventions in the education field and here is an excerpt from a DEF Dialogue which explores this aspect along with looking at the very definition of it from a purpose oriented perspective.
Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) for girls is an initiative of DEF to provide better exposure to science and art streams of education which has been launched in Assam and Telangana states of India, covering 154 schools in total. The reach so far has been in 22 districts of Telangana and 4 districts of Assam helping 6,000 students in a span of three years. Although the main agenda was to introduce STEM subjects as part of the education, three years of work and learning has nudged DEF to change the vocabulary of STEM to Strong, Tenacious, Efficacious and Magnificent.
One of the DEF Dialogues was dedicated to understanding about the relevance and impact of such a program and Shahid Siddiqui, project manager of STEM for girls, spoke about the journey of establishing a STEM for girls program.
The education system and the societal attitude towards it is many times seen at crossroads with the current state of affairs in terms of employment and higher education opportunities. A stagnant thought process that the STEM subjects are out of reach or context in a rural set up has imposed behavioral and learning restrictions among students. 5 major myths that needed to be addressed while introducing the programs were that: only genius can take up STEM subjects, fear around not being able to clear multiple choice based competitive exams, STEM subjects are perceived to be relatively logical in nature and lacks creativity, the only career option to choose would be that of a scientist in this stream and higher education would prove to be very expensive which rural students can’t afford.
Considering these myths, the next challenge was to convince the 4 stakeholders: school, students, teachers, parents and the community, of an educational setup to bring a change in the ecosystem. Shahid reflects on his own experience, coming from a rural background, and took it upon himself to convince himself first before rolling out the program. Looking at people struggling everyday for bread and butter, it is hard to put STEM into the context to justify their means of livelihood. But on the other hand, the need for digital education cannot go unnoticed which formed the base of the argument. Irrespective of what one would choose later, imparting digital education through STEM would always serve them in a progressive way.
The journey began with working alongside the most important stakeholders, teachers. They were oriented towards the intent and impending impact of the program and the space was open to come up with a lot of questions that would bolster the fundamentals of the program. The next set of engagements were with the government stakeholders who were involved with the decisions around curriculum, providing space in government schools, etc. Following an IT audit, certain schools which had functional computers were chosen to launch the project.
The parents were engaged actively only 6 months after the launch and ensured that a passive inclusion of them was achieved through design implementation where it was carried out in such a way that the students played the role of ambassadors to the program.
One of the frequently asked questions is: why STEM for girls and not boys? IBM through its vast reach in STEM related projects realized that girls were more marginalized in education and the dropout rates inclined more towards the female gender owing to socio economic reasons like early marriages, safety concerns, etc. which are still prevalent in rural areas. On the positive end, it was observed that when girls are taught, they carry their learnings in their families which expands the reach on social grounds. Although the program is more dedicated to girl students, boys are very much part of the program. The only aspect that we always keep in mind is that at the end of the day, girls are not excluded.
The highlight of the project is not just the added focus on the STEM subjects but more on the whole process of learning and education. The power of learning is very different from actually learning the mentioned subjects which is reflected in the behavioral changes of the beneficiaries that one sees. These students portray confidence and ambition along with an open mindedness to ask more questions out of curiosity, initiate discussions, share frank opinions, etc. This can be traced back to the design thinking that emphasized on including behavioral aspects in the facilitator’s manual.
These improvisations were made in the 3rd and 4th version of the facilitator’s manual based on the learnings from the program. In the first year, the focus was more on developing the scientific temperament of the students which didn’t prove to be straightforward. To instigate interest in these subjects, other aspects needed to be considered. The results of these interventions are seen with the changing attitudes of the students. The approach was very clear that, without addressing the social problems, it would be hard to get past the situation. Teachers, facilitators, and everyone involved with the project upto the management team in Delhi were looped in to find solution based strategies rather than a troubleshooting approach where one problem just gets transferred somewhere else. We were alert about situations where problems were getting transferred and very clear about ensuring more inclusivity in such situations with the main aim to resolve the problems. Such working dynamics demand presence of all those involved which was ensured by scheduling 1 hour meetings every Saturday on all levels irrespective of holidays which helped to understand and resolve issues on a weekly basis. This makes DEF’s approach in STEM projects stand out compared to other such initiatives.
Some of the highlights of the journey so far are that a change in the way STEM subjects were perceived was observed among the teachers and parents. Crossing the hurdle of convincing parents to allow their children to access online content led to teachers and students warming up to the idea of online classes. Teachers need to be given the time and space to adjust to the new realm of online teaching and guide them in recording videos and using the tools. The discouraging attitude that persisted among girl students imposed by the society on their career choices was debunked with the introduction of the program. The students seem to have better clarity about their ambitions and goals with an added energy of enhanced confidence to chase their dreams. As an organization, DEF is better equipped to work on collaborative, future ready and customized classes that ensures better inclusivity.
Apart from these challenges, there were additional obstacles to get past during the lockdown imposed due to COVID-19. The problems faced by students were threefold in nature: classes had to be redesigned to cater for the home environment, affording the Internet posed a challenge to facilitate online classes for all and a smart device not always available to help in online learning. Solution centric attitude helped the team in catering to these problems by first using the already familiar tools like WhatsApp as mediums to broadcast education materials, dividing students into groups allowed flexibility in choosing the time slots to learn, introducing IVR (audio recordings) helped in reaching out to students who had access to only feature phones. Repetitions of classes 5 times over the radio helped in reinforcing the education content and the most important role was played by the facilitators who made themselves available when students wished to solve problems under their guidance.
One can’t fail to mention that during the pandemic, the students missed out on the physical interventions which played a crucial role but on the flip side of it, the situation pushed them to be more open to online learning which made the work a lot easier once they started coming back to classes.
Thinking on the lines of upscaling these programmes on a national level, Shahid points to the complexity of the ecosystem and shares that it is not easy to pick up any state and implement the program. Understanding that each state has its own characteristic feature which needs to be studied. For instance, Assam was more alienated to the concept while Telangana was not. During the interactions, it was noticed that Assam teachers were more concerned about their holidays while teachers from Telangana seemed more excited. The government plays a role in creating such differences based on the varied efforts poured into improving education systems. The concluding remark is that the demography and cultural backdrop needs to be analyzed thoroughly and customization of programs should be worked upon in order to expand the reach.
With these experiences, the way forward would be to create a cohort of teachers who understand STEM so that they continue the initiative over a longer term. The government should look into including digital media as subjects and eventually use it as a medium of education.
Further expanding on the next steps to think about once these students are well educated about STEM, creating innovative spaces like that of maker’s space helps to provide opportunities and a channel to put their education into practice. The aim of the project is not to make every student a doctor, engineer, etc. but to push them to explore their strengths as an individual.